Why open-plan offices are ruining the work place

Australia lacks key insights into some of the most important economic issues facing families, a committee has found.

Australia lacks key insights into some of the most important economic issues facing families, a committee has found. Photo: Getty

The open-plan office was supposedly meant to foster collaboration and openness among employees but has proven to be hugely unpopular with workers — and there is plenty of research to explain why.

Countless studies have shown that open-plan offices decrease productivity and affect employee’s wellbeing, resulting in an increasing number of sick days.

A 2013 study of more than 42,000 office workers, in the USA, Finland, Canada and Australia, titled the Workspace satisfaction: The privacy-communication trade off in open-plan offices, conducted PHD candidates Jungsoo Kim and Professor Richard de Dear from the faculty of Architecture and Planning at Sydney University, found many workers believed open-plan offices to be disruptive to productivity.

Mr Kim said that while open-plan layouts have been touted as a way to boost workplace satisfaction and team effectiveness, their research found people in open-plan offices were less satisfied with their workplace environment than those in private offices.

“The benefits of being close to co-workers in open-plan offices were offset by factors such as increased noise and less privacy,” he said.

The study also found that workers in open-plan offices had 62 per cent more sick days than people in cellular or private offices. The study found uncontrollable noise and loss of privacy were the main sources of workplace dissatisfaction in open plan.

“Open-plan offices dominate modern workplaces, yet there is little solid evidence they improve interaction between co-workers,” he said. “Our research was the first to use such a large sample size as well as to compare the reportedly positives aspects of open plan offices with the negatives.”

Open plan office

The way our brains are wired make it hard to concentrate when co-workers are chatting nearby.

PR consultant Susin Thoroughgood’s issues with open-plan offices were typical of many workers.

“Open-plan offices drive me crazy!” she said. “People chatting on the phone around your desk, music playing over the speakers, super cold air- conditioning and people coming over and asking questions every ten minutes.”

Thoroughgood said such an environment was one of the reasons she left and she felt more productive since working from home.

“It wasn’t the only reason, but a major one.

The distraction of being in an open-plan office was a huge factor in my leaving.

“Now, I’ve never been more productive since working from home and on my own.”

Over the past four years, corporate psychologist Stephanie Thompson has noticed an increase in the number of her clients complaining about open-planned space.

“The central complaint has been the inability to focus,” she said. “Particularly, those in roles that require complex thought processes.”

Thompson said the brain naturally hones in on intelligible speech. “So, if someone is hovering near your desk in conversation, it’s very distracting and hard to ignore,” she said. “One client found a roof space away from the common area to use when their work required analytical thinking. This proved a good solution. If possible, take yourself away or to a separate location, or work from home.”

work from home

Some workers feel they are more productive based at home.

She explained further, saying it normally took the brain one or two minutes to disengage from one topic and engage to another, and then, back the other way, and re-engage to the original.

“With constant distractions, just imagine this is going on all the time for some people in open plan offices. In the end, those minutes add up to lost productivity.”

For those working in large open areas, she suggests employers assign a quiet area, much like a library, make this official, and clearly marked. “Also, have an area for social interaction such as a place to eat and chat.”

Employees’ wish list for open plan

  • Keep your mobile off, or on vibrate
  • Take group meetings into a room
  • Use a headphone to listen to music
  • Talk quietly on the phone
  • Keep your area clean
  • Assign designated mobile-free and quiet zones
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